Stonechat Travels 3

Henry Stanier

Stonechats were up on the higher ground, relatively speaking, during the Christmas floods, but life goes on during lockdown.

A few years ago I wrote about the winter visitors responding to wet weather, with whooper swans being seen up at Rymes Reservoir. Not surprisingly, they are back again, as the Nene and Ouse Washes are full of water. The sounds as well as the sights of the Great Fen can be so evocative and the calm weather has brought this to mind. Visits to the Great Fen in early January, now restricted due to the current lockdown, were accompanied by the trumpeting of the swans, just part of our local 'soundscape', with only the occasional flyover from planes, and the welcome "chak, chak, chak" of the stonechats.

Earlier this month, one of my colleges, Mark Ullyett was out with fellow reserves officer Helen Bailey. While they were busy at work, not only had they come across snipe, on the island at Kings Mere (Rymes Reedbed), but they could also hear, if not see the tinkling calls of teal, drifting across the Fen.

With water levels high, the variety of water features across the Fen are being used by a range of birdlife, from dabbling ducks to little egrets and kingfishers. The heavy rainfall and the consequent rise in the water has done exactly what we want on the restoration land at the Great Fen, topping up reservoirs, expanding the meres, and filling in the shallow surface ‘grips’. The view from the air, as well as the ground is very encouraging, as the Great Fen is designed to cope with this type of extreme weather.

Kester's Docking and Rymes Reedbed on 25 December 2020

By Henry Stanier

A view across the grips at Kester's Docking and the meres of Rymes Reedbed over Christmas 2020.

On the higher ground, and we are only talking about a few centimetres, other wildlife go about their business, not least the stonechats. One of the main places they have been seen is on the Northern Loop, on what used to be Whittlesea Mere. Due to the lakebed deposits, it is actually higher than the surrounding peatlands, so not an area we would reflood.

They will have to watch out for birds of prey though. Raptors, such as a female merlin, have been seen dashing low, across the wild flower meadows on the Northern Loop. These meadows will come into their own in spring, as the cowslips come into flower, the prostrate, fleshy green leaves already conspicuous amongst the grazed grassland. If you look across the Northern Loop, you may see sheep grazing in action. In future, check out the electric fence supports for stonechats, perched on top as they sneak out from the reed-fringed ditches and chase down insects.

Last night I delivered a workshop on raptors, to help people develop their species identification skills, providing some hints and tips, as well as the latest on where to see them in the Great Fen. I included some video clips, courtesy of the trail cameras I use.

Assuming you don't live next to the Great Fen, and so are unable to use it for your local exercise, look out for the online talks and courses we are providing in the coming weeks and months. You can learn more about the video clips I take as part of our programme of Wildlife Training Workshops, in the course on trail cameras, later in the year. Before that, I am also covering dormice and a long-term love of mine, dragonflies.

Our car park at New Decoy, and the circular Dragonfly Trail there, is good place to explore in the future. As well as buzzard, kestrel, red kite and raven, it is also regularly producing sightings of stonechat. This route leads up to the edge of Holme Fen, where one of our stonechats was seen and photographed by Russell Coles on 22 December, last year.

Male stonechat right mauve left white

Male stonechat by Russell Coles

Male stonechat (right leg mauve, left leg white), first encountered at New Decoy on the 22 October, last year. He was photographed 2 months later, only 500m north of his previous position.

The older parts of the  Great Fen do need help in adapting to climate change, and areas such as Woodwalton Fen have been affected by the flood water, which is why it is still closed to the public. Over Christmas, it suffered bank to bank inundation, and so is still closed due to the resulting damage to access.

Middle Farm (foreground) and Woodwalton Fen (background) on 25 December 2020

Henry Stanier

High water levels at Middle Farm (foreground) and a flooded Woodwalton Fen (background), on 25 December 2020.

This is happening more and more often, another indicator of climate change, and while the newer parts of the Fen, such as Middle Farm are designed to cope, work is ongoing for other parts of this living landscape, and beyond, to help adjust to the challenges we face.

In the meantime, check social media for updates on the current closure of Woodwalton Fen. If you would like to learn more about this reserve, one of the oldest in the country, check out our forthcoming online evening with Alan Bowley, former site manager or Woodwalton and Holme Fen.

Henry Stanier (Great Fen Monitoring and Research Officer)